Minnesota was a darkhorse pick in the Big Ten heading into the 2016 season – it missed Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State and returned a senior quarterback from a bowl team. An 8-4 season is nothing to be disappointed in but some Gopher fans expected more.
Minnesota won all the battles they were expected to in 2016, but lost all the ones that mattered. Narrow defeats to Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska stole the magic from a season that would eventually turn into a nightmare.
AT A GLANCE: Cougars (8-4) vs Golden Gophers (8-4)
4:00 p.m. Pacific
Qualcomm Stadium (70,561)
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WSU by 10
Washington State won 41-9 in Minneapolis in 1988.
Washington State leads 3-2.
MATT MOORE's PREDICTION:
Cougs 38, Gophers 24
THE GOPHERS ON OFFENSE:
QB Mitch Leidner: Minnesota fans have a love-hate relationship with its starting quarterback. After starting nearly every game of his four year career, Leidner has led the Gophers to four straight bowl games and sits near the top of their record books. But there is an undeniable sense that the senior never really developed into the quarterback fans always thought he would. Leidner has great size and mobility, which allowed him to run for 442 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, but his passing stats have left much to be desired. In 2016, Leidner has thrown for 2,040 yards and just seven touchdowns against 12 costly interceptions.
RB Rodney Smith: He has managed 1,042 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, which is impressive given that he plays in largely a committee backfield with Shannon Brooks. Both backs are legit pro prospects. Smith is elusive and physical, playing much larger than his 205-pound frame. He is also Minnesota's second leading receiver.
WR Drew Wolitarski: Half of Leidner's problems are a shortage of talented receivers. But he does have a favorite target in Wolitarski. The 6-3 senior has 61 grabs for 787 yards, along with five of Leidner's seven touchdown passes.
This is a ground and pound, ball control offense in the tradition of the Big Ten. The Gophers do not pass the ball particularly well, but they often don't need to. When the defense and running game is working, Minnesota feels right at home. When the Gophers decide go to the air though, they prefer to do so out of play action.
The primary focus has to be on Smith -- he is Minnesota's best offense weapon. The problem for the Cougs: a running quarterbacks, which is Leidner's strong suit. Overall, forcing Minnesota into passing downs is the name of the game, but that is easier said than done.
Leidner's 56 percent completion percentage: Leidner has a decent arm, but he isn't appreciably accurate. There is nothing wrong with an offense built around the run, but the quarterback has to be able punish teams that stack the box.
THE GOPHERS ON DEFENSE:
Safety Damarius Travis: Along with cornerback Jalen Myrick, Travis makes for the two seniors who will try to hold the patchwork secondary together. Expect Myrick (No. 5) to be left on his own most of the day, with Travis helping out on the opposing side.
DT Steven Richardson: The Gophers have generated 34 sacks this season (No. 21 nationally) and it stems from the pressure Richardson brings up the middle. The junior leads the team with seven sacks and 11 TFL this season.
Minnesota runs a fairly traditional 4-3 defense. The issue has become a matter of personnel. Of the 10 Minnesota players suspended on December 13, the majority of them were on defense. The Gophers will face the Cougs without their starting free safety and three of their top four cornerbacks.
Spread and shred. Luke Falk should be able to punish the thin Gopher secondary if he has protection, but I expect the Cougar running backs to really have an effective game. Minnesota has no choice but to protect its secondary, which should leave the backs with a lot of space to work with.
No. 23 Total Defense: Minnesota may be down a few men, but this is still a top flight defense. The Gophers rank 20th against the run and 35th in pass efficiency.
THE GOPHERS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Emmit Carpenter has converted 21 of 23 field goal attempts including every single kick over 40 yards.
- Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys might be coaching for his job but many of the players could be playing for theirs too. The show of unity during the recent boycott was initially seen as impressive, but it quickly turned into something very different in the eyes of the alums, administration and the general public at large. There figures to be a good amount of attrition after the bowl game, and adjusting to a major house cleaning could be in store for those who stick around. Whether any of that plays a role in the bowl game for Minnesota is anyone's guess.
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